Lack of Planning for Dispersant Use “Handicapped” Response

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The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies didn’t do their homework on dispersants before the Gulf spill began on April 20. That’s the conclusion of a second staff report released Wednesday by the National Oil Spill Commission. While it’s certainly less scathing than the report on the government’s handling of questions about the size of the spill, the dispersant report doesn’t exactly let the Obama administration off easy–in fact, it lambasts government officials for failing to prepare adequately for a disaster of this magnitude.

Over the course of the spill, 1.84 million gallons of the chemicals were sprayed at the surface of the water and injected at the well head. As we’ve reported extensively here, the decision to use these chemicals was made with relatively little information about the toxicity of the products or their longterm impacts. BP essentially ignored a directive from the EPA to find an alternative to its product of choice, and the Coast Guard repeatedly approved requests to exceed the limits that the government eventually set on dispersant use.

The report criticizes the EPA for not considering the possibility that dispersants “might have to be used in the massive volumes required in the Gulf” prior to the April 20 spill or “the distinct possibility that massive volumes of dispersants might be needed at the subsea level.” It concludes:

Neither omission can be justified on the ground that a major subsea spill was wholly unforeseeable. The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years. This is not a new, unanticipated development. Nor is deepwater drilling.

The report also criticizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for not previously evaluating the “potential impacts of voluminous and extended use of dispersants on marine life and the nation’s fisheries.”

These failures, the report states, meant that “the National Incident Commander, the EPA Administrator, and the NOAA Administrator were seriously handicapped when the Macondo well explosion occurred and decisions had to be made immediately in the absence of adequate contingency planning.” The lack of adequate planning also “made unclear the lines of authority between various federal agencies in determining whether dispersants should be used.”

Still, the report concludes that government responders acted as reasonably as possible with regard to dispersant use given the minimal information they were working with. “Given the conditions under which officials like Admiral [Thad] Allen and EPA Administrator [Lisa] Jackson were acting, there is no clear evidence that their decisions to authorize high volumes of dispersants, including at the subsea, were unreasonable,” it concludes.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to criticize in the response. Two sources informed the commission staff that the EPA “waited until late June to permanently install one of the Agency’s most senior officials at the Unified Command Center in Robert, Louisiana.” The report notes that EPA “could have done a better job of ensuring that its on-scene representatives had both the expertise and the authority to make decisions regarding the use of dispersants.”

It also notes that the fact that BP and its contractors were in charge of applying the dispersant “fueled public distrust of the decision to use dispersants.” While the commission staff did not find evidence of BP or contractors intentionally violating government directives on their use, the situation did create the impression of impropriety.

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